It was a field-goal attempt no longer than an extra-point try. And as Texas Lutheran found out, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
The unorthodox field goal occurred when Tyler Hopkins’ kick was blocked by a player from Belhaven University. The ball bounced back to Hopkins who kicked the ball through the uprights. The officials under the goalposts exchanged puzzled looks and ran in to conference with their colleagues. They knew something wasn’t quite right, but couldn’t see what happened through the players on the line. After a long discussion, the field goal was awarded.
— TLU Bulldogs (@tluathletics) September 17, 2017
But was this legal?
The axiom that seems to have tripped up everyone from the officials to Mr. Saturday is that “a kick remains a kick until it is possessed.” This helps to compartmentalize many aspects of the rulebook as it pertains to a loose ball. Enforcement points and changes of possession hinge on that interpretation. So the entire time from the initial placekick through to the ball going through the uprights is a “kick” under the rules. But there is one more defined term in this paragraph that was not addressed.
A ball that is not in a player’s possession is a loose ball: in-flight forward passes, fumbles, kicks, and backward passes are all loose balls. So, the blocked field goal remains a kick, but it is also a loose ball. And under no circumstance may a player deliberately kick a loose ball. (A ball being dropped for a legal punt or dropkick is not considered loose if it is kicked as usual.) So, at this point there is a foul for an illegal kick. This being Division III, we are under NCAA rules, and the illegal kick is a 15-yard penalty and a loss of down. Assuming this is a fourth down, this would be a turnover on downs.
In high school and the NFL, it is not a loss-of-down penalty for a scrimmage kick behind the line. (The loss of down does apply to downfield illegal kicks, since the enforcement is from the spot of the foul and the offense gets a partial advance.) In those cases, the foul would allow the offense to repeat the down, so the defense has to decline the penalty. The result of the play would be a touchback, since the offense provided the impetus to put the ball out of bounds in their opponent’s end zone. The fact that the ball goes through the uprights is disregarded on an illegal kick, and it doesn’t require the foul to be enforced to negate a field goal.
(Technically, for the NFL, this also gets placed at the 20, as a missed field goal that went beyond the line — remember, it was still a kick — goes to the 20 if the spot of the kick is inside the 20.)
Back to the original play, if this was any down except fourth, and the illegal kick foul was flagged, Belhaven could have similarly declined the penalty to take possession at the 20.
Texas Lutheran had a handful of legal options available after a blocked field goal: they could run, pass, or punt the ball. Hopkins could have attempted a dropkick and scored, but his effort here is not ruled a dropkick, since he did not drop the ball. Although it is highly unlikely to be coordinated, an NFL team may attempt a second placekick — this could not happen in the NCAA, due to the holder’s knee being on the ground. All of these situations require the kicking team to take possession of the ball behind the line of scrimmage.
So, yeah, there’s going to be a memo this week to all of the officials in the conference, and this play will be shared on many training tapes. And, for one Division III kicker, it will be on his highlight reel.